- Historic Sites
When Our Ancestors Became Us
In 1820 their daily existence was practically medieval; thirty years later many of them were living the modern life
December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
Rural areas and towns too small to justify building a gas works could not benefit from gaslight, of course. But beginning in 1830, the oil lamp, which burned whale oil, proved a cheaper and much superior alternative to candles. And by the 1860s oil lamps were more and more burning kerosene instead of oil from the fast-diminishing schools of whales. In both city and country, interior illumination was cheap for the first time in history and could be used in abundance. Warmth as well as light entered the American household at this time. Although the Romans had had elabop rate means of heating their villas and baths, the technology had vanished in the Middle Ages. Various means of central heating were rediscovered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a few commercial establishments in Europe, such as greenhouses, employed them. The Bank of England had a hot-water heating system installed in its offices as early as 1792. But it was not until canals, and then railroads, had lowered the cost of coal, and the Industrial Revolution had drastically lowered the cost of ducting and pipes, by the 1840s, that central heating became possible for middle-class homes.
The first household furnaces used hot air. The early ones heated the air in a large brick vault about six feet by nine in the basement. The air was brought in from the outside by wooden ducts, and other ducts conveyed the warmed air to the rooms above. Big as they were, these furnaces could heat only the lower floors; upstairs bedrooms still relied on fireplaces.
While the early furnaces were a blessing, they were not always adequate to the job, and they often produced as much smoke and fumes as heat. On January 8, 1866—"the coldest day in sixty years"—George Templeton Strong complained that he could not get the temperature of his house in New York above thirty-eight degrees, despite the fact that both furnaces and all the fireplaces were roaring away.
Americans fell immediately in love with central heating. Englishmen visiting this country were horrified, just as they are today. “The method of heating in many of the best houses is a terrible grievance to persons not accustomed to it,” wrote Thomas Golley Grattan, the former British consul in Boston, “and a fatal misfortune to those who are. Casual visitors are nearly suffocated, and the constant occupiers killed. An enormous furnace sends up, day and night, streams of hot air through apertures and pipes.... It meets you the moment the street door is opened to let you in, and it rushes after you when you emerge again, half-stewed and parboiled, into the welcome air.” Hot-water systems and then steam, with all its technological, if not aesthetic, advantages, soon replaced the primitive hot-air furnaces, and by the 1860s the chill of winter was fast disappearing from middle- and upper-class American households.
Cooking had long been done on a fire in an open hearth. This chore was necessarily done largely on one’s knees, and the need for constant adjustment of the coals meant that the cook stayed close to the fire for hours at a time. Benjamin Franklin invented a considerable improvement over the fireplace for heating in the 1740s with his Franklin stove, and it was not long before the possibility of a stove for cooking was considered.
But the cookstove didn’t really catch on until the Industrial Revolution had begun to bring down the cost of cast iron and of shipping heavy freight. The cookstove, “that conserver of nerve and muscle, of woman’s temper and woman’s complexion,” as one enthusiast termed it, was vastly more efficient, reliable, and easy to use than the hearth. Its arrival in American households was greeted by those who did the cooking with the same unbridled joy with which their descendants met the automatic dishwasher and clothes washer.
Just as furnaces and cookstoves provided heat, so the ice-box provided cold. Ice had long been an item in American commerce, and the principles of insulation were well known. In the 1840s it became possible for small iceboxes to be made cheaply enough to become a feature of the middleclass kitchen, while the ice wagon on its regular rounds became a fixture in urban neighborhoods. A cold glass of milk in July became, in many American households, a marvelous reality, and the menace to health and the economic waste represented by spoiled food began to decline. By the 1850s ice—cut on ponds in the winter and stored in vast ice-houses under tons of sawdust—was a major New England industry, employing upwards of ten thousand people. Some 150,000 tons of ice a year were shipped out of Boston as far as India, and ice accounted for more freight tonnage than any other American item except King Cotton itself.
Houses fitted with the new technological marvels were a lot more comfortable than their immediate predecessors had been, but they still required a large number of servants to function efficiently. In the early years of the nineteenth century, affluent Americans had had a “servant problem” because only a small percentage of the population wanted employment as domestics and a large percentage wanted to employ them. But as people began to move off the farms, especially after the great Atlantic migration began in the 1840s, the price of servants began to tumble. To be sure, Europeans—especially the illiterate, primitive Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine—were not much admired as domestic help; help wanted ads often specified “American” applicants, a plain and simple code for “No Irish need apply.” But servants were cheap and plentiful, and the latter half of the nineteenth century was to be the great age of domestic help in this country.